Does Europe Matter to the Obama Administration?

Brian Katulis discusses the changing relationship between Europe and the United States on foreign policy.

A police officers stands guard near the hotel "Bayerischer Hof" where politicians and military representatives will convene this weekend for the annual Munich Security conference. (AP/Christof Stache)
A police officers stands guard near the hotel "Bayerischer Hof" where politicians and military representatives will convene this weekend for the annual Munich Security conference. (AP/Christof Stache)

I’m just back from Brussels, where President Barack Obama’s decision this week to skip a proposed American-European Union summit this spring in Madrid stung like a slap in the face for many Obama supporters on that side of the Atlantic. I spoke at a conference taking stock of President Obama’s first year on several national security issues, and “disappointed” summed up the overall mood among most Europeans.

President Obama may have inflated expectations beyond what was realistic regarding transatlantic ties over the past year, or European allies may not have delivered enough on issues such as South Asia or the Middle East. But it’s clear that the transatlantic honeymoon is over and the relationship has entered a new phase affected by broader structural changes in the world—one in which a multilateral diplomacy is messier, involving numerous centers of power that include countries such as China, Russia, India, and Brazil.

Pessimism was pervasive. Experts on the Middle East panel didn’t offer much sign of hope on Iran or the Arab-Israeli front. On Middle East peace, a British analyst argued that it seemed that the Obama administration has fallen back into the trap of striving for process for the sake of process. Views on climate change were similarly glum. My colleague Andrew Light spent much of his time at the conference trying to convince our European counterparts that the Copenhagen conference actually moved the ball down the field and that all is not lost. He told me he’d spent a lot of time earlier in the week in Germany pushing back against a narrative that climate change was a lost cause because of the Massachusetts special election result last month.

On Afghanistan and Pakistan, British analyst Daniel Korski, who has some serious experience on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, shared my concerns about the continued lack of a clear strategy, especially on Pakistan. As I pointed out last week in an article on the Obama administration’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we only have a slightly better idea of what the goals are in Afghanistan, and still no clear idea in Pakistan. Korski more directly called for the need to set a plan B for Afghanistan. He also excoriated the passivity of Europe on Afghanistan, pointing out that much of Europe waited while the Obama administration deliberated for more than three months on its policy review last year. Korski’s main point is that most of the European allies showed no separate initiative and were waiting to take their cues from the United States.

The lunchtime keynote speaker, Reinhard Buetikofer, a member of the European Parliament from the German Green party, offered some sharper criticisms of how he thought the Obama administration handled transatlantic diplomacy. He also took a couple of swipes at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, including saying that she sometimes “comes off as disingenuous.” The Obamamania afterglow seen in election night parties across Europe has faded.

A broader question hung over the Brussels conference—how much does Europe matter for overall U.S. national security strategy? Clearly, it still matters, but the Obama administration’s handling of the would-be summit left more questions. Where Europe stands relative to countries like China, Russia, India, and Brazil remains to be seen.

The Obama administration has mapped out an aggressive yet unclear multilateral diplomatic approach. At the Brussels conference, Richard Gowan, associate director of policy at the Center on International Cooperation, described Obama’s multilateral diplomacy as “radical” yet still ill defined, in large part because it involves risky bets with countries like China on issues such as climate change and Iran. It is not certain this approach will achieve results.

One hint of how the world is changing might be found at a different, higher profile conference this weekend—the Munich Security Conference. This conference is often a leading indicator of where things are headed in the world; leaders use the forum to send signals about new initiatives. For example, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s speech last year called for pressing the “reset” button on U.S.-Russian relations.

The Munich conference opened with a keynote speech by China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi. This is the first time a Chinese official has opened the security policy conference, now in its 46th year. This level of participation is another sign of broader structural shifts in the global security environment—and raises questions about how much Europe matters relative to rising (or re-rising) powers such as China, Russia, India, and Brazil.

The question of how much Europe matters to the United States will ultimately be answered by how much Europe actually delivers on key policy questions such as dealing with instability in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, addressing climate change, and continuing to coordinate policies on continued global economic difficulties. The more it steps up, the more attention it will likely get on the agenda. As the consummate pragmatist, President Obama will look for results from friends.

President Obama has staked out an ambitious global strategy, and its success is heavily dependent on how much other countries contribute to solutions to global security problems. The global realignment of power we are seeing unfold in the second year of the Obama administration will be shaped more by concrete actions and less so by setting a new tone in speeches. Just as the fate of the Obama administration’s domestic agenda depends on how it keeps friends in Congress happy while reaching out to opponents, the fate of Obama’s national security agenda depends on a delicate balancing act between maintaining strong ties with traditional alliances while seeking new relationships with rising powers.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow